Inventor Lawrence Hargrave: face of the old Australian $20 note

By Lynda Delacey 6 May 2015
Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page
From 1966 to 1994, Australia’s $20 bill featured a little-known inventor who made a major contribution to the invention of the aeroplane

ON A BREEZY MORNING in November, 1894, Australian explorer and inventor Lawrence Hargrave carried an elaborate contraption down onto a beach at Stanwell Park, NSW and carried out an experiment which would revolutionise aviation.

This was an exciting time in the history of flight, characterised by ‘gentleman scientists’ such as Hargrave, working out of home workshops and sheds in a global race to invent a self-powered, fixed-wing flying vehicle.

Hargrave was an inventor from an early age. As a young man living at Rushcutters Bay in Sydney, he created (and often used) a pair of boat-shaped boots with hinged flaps that let him walk on water.

When he left school, he joined several exploratory trips to New Guinea as a ship’s engineer before returning to Sydney and taking a position at the Sydney Observatory as an assistant astronomical engineer. At the age of 30, he inherited enough money to support his family while pursuing his passion for invention.

Australian invention in the age of aviation

At the time, early aviators were experimenting with mono-winged gliders, which were proving unstable and unsafe, and trying to develop an engine powerful enough to achieve lift.

Hargrave conducted many experiments and made countless models of his ideas. He studied aerofoils and developed a wave-propelled boat, a screw-driven engine, a working model aircraft with flapping wings, and a rotary engine so ahead of its time it was re-created by another inventor in 1908 and used in aviation for many years.


Hargrave invented wings that created lift

Hargrave is best remembered for solving the problem of creating man-made wings that provided lift, safety and stability.

On that beach at Stanwell Park, Hargrave climbed into a sling seat attached to an elaborate series of four box kites carrying instruments to measure wind speed and altitude. With the help of his employee, James Swaine, Hargrave rose safely into the air – more than 16 feet into the air – becoming the first person in history to be lifted off the ground by a stable fixed wing device.

In a paper published by the Royal Society of New South Wales, Hargrave wrote: “The particular steps gained are the demonstration that an extremely simple apparatus can be made, carried about, and flown by one man; and that a safe means of making an ascent with a flying machine, of trying the same without any risk of accident, and descending, is now at the service of any experimenter who wishes to use it.”

Hargrave an unsung Australian inventor

Hargrave firmly believed that scientific discovery should be disseminated freely, so he never received wide recognition for his work. However, the American aviator Octave Chanute reported that the skies of eastern USA were soon “red with Hargrave Kites” and groups of US aviators dubbed themselves “Hargrave disciples”.

Hargrave’s radical new wing design achieved greater lift and stability than any that came before. It laid the groundwork for the first powered biplane flight at Kittyhawk in 1903.

And it is for his contribution to innovation that he is celebrated on one side of the Australian $20 note.